Missoula County commissioners awarded a total of $120,000 Thursday to two sheriff’s deputies who alleged Sheriff Carl Ibsen discriminated against them when they announced their plan to run for sheriff and undersheriff.
Sheriff’s candidate Detective Sgt. T.J. McDermott and his potential undersheriff, Detective Jason Johnson, filed complaints last year, saying that Ibsen created a hostile work environment and retaliated against them because of their “political beliefs.”
Human Rights Bureau investigator Dennis Unsworth conducted two investigations into the allegations and in late November, the Human Rights Bureau notified all parties that it found those complaints of discrimination to be valid.
As a result, the county agreed to settle with McDermott and Johnson, awarding them $60,000 each in separate settlement agreements Thursday. The agreements also stipulate that high-ranking sheriff’s officials are required to complete human rights training and allow the Human Rights Bureau oversight of the sheriff’s department for one year.
Commissioners approved the settlements in a unanimous vote during Thursday’s administrative meeting, following several months of negotiations between the county and McDermott and Johnson.
“I will be glad to see this chapter behind us,” Commissioner Michele Landquist said after the vote.
Ibsen and current Undersheriff Josh Clark, who announced his candidacy for sheriff Wednesday, were also in attendance, but left the meeting immediately after the vote. Ibsen is not running for re-election.
In a phone call after the meeting, Ibsen said he could only respond in accordance with the stipulations in the agreement and quoted the document saying, “This case has been amicably resolved to the satisfaction of all parties.”
Because of the terms of the settlements, McDermott said he couldn’t release the complaint he filed against the sheriff’s department.
The settlements also restricted McDermott’s and Johnson’s ability to speak candidly about the agreement.
“One of the fundamental rights under our Constitution is that none of us will be treated differently because of our political beliefs,” McDermott said in a prepared statement. “I have filed this claim because it was the right thing to do. Now, we can move forward and I can do what I do best – enforce the law and protect all citizens equally.”
Johnson’s complaint was previously released to the Missoulian, as was the result of Unsworth’s investigation into Johnson’s allegations against the sheriff.
Filed on June 5, 2013, Johnson’s complaint alleges that Ibsen demoted him from his position as public information officer after he announced his plan to run as McDermott’s undersheriff in the 2014 race. He was removed from his position, he said, despite receiving excellent reviews in his periodic evaluations and discussing his growth within the position for the next five years with his supervisors.
After his demotion, Johnson wrote that he was required to work in a noisy area called “the pit” and lost the additional compensation the PIO receives for working overtime. He said he was restricted from talking to reporters and operating the department’s Facebook page without the express approval of his supervisors during his last few weeks as PIO.
In response to the allegations, Ibsen denied the move was a demotion and said he had been planning Johnson’s transition out of the position for several months. Ibsen defended curtailing Johnson’s social media responsibility, arguing that the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department Facebook page had increasingly become the sheriff’s department union’s page under Johnson’s supervision.
He further asserted that McDermott and Johnson “should be ashamed of the turmoil they are creating within the department for their own selfish goals – whatever they may be.”
Unsworth also interviewed several witnesses, including county human resources director Patty Baumgart and Ibsen’s friend and colleague Bill Burt.
Burt told the investigator that Ibsen said he would “do anything within his power to keep that son of a bitch (McDermott) from being elected.”
Burt also told the investigator Ibsen would rather see anyone other than McDermott in the position and would even consider running again to keep McDermott from being elected. With Johnson’s endorsement, Burt believed McDermott would be able to win the election – an outcome that Ibsen apparently was staunchly against.
In that report, Unsworth concluded that he found “reasonable cause” to believe that Ibsen had indeed discriminated against Johnson.
“I find the preponderance of the evidence establishes that Respondent’s answer to the charge was pretext for illegal discrimination, and the change in the PIO position was a demotion that occurred because of Johnson’s political beliefs – his support and involvement with a candidate Ibsen opposed,” he wrote.